The Review/Interview/

The Non-Conformist

Talking about Brian De Palma's political side with critic Chris Dumas

by
Jul 6, 2016

The only time I ever interviewed Brian De Palma was back in 2007 about his much-maligned Iraq war drama Redacted. The film used the fact-based story of American military personnel who’d raped and murdered an Iraqi woman to critique both the second Gulf war and the increasingly untrustworthy 21st Century visual culture that manufactured a narrative of images for international consumption. Given Redacted’s relentless focus on the politics of perception, I thought it would be good to start by paraphrasing one of the key lines in De Palma’s screenplay back at him. “Do you really think,” I asked one of the most notorious voyeurs in the history of cinema, “that it is ‘impolite to stare?'” The pause before De Palma replied seemed to go on forever. Instead of answering, he simply repeated the question — “is it impolite to stare?” — while looking me dead in the eye, to the point that I almost regretted asking it in the first place.

With their propensity for long, unbroken takes and point-of-view shots, the films of Brian De Palma (now screening all summer long at TIFF Bell Lightbox in an exhaustive retrospective) can be taken as a collective exercise in cinematic perspective. And while it’s an uneven body of work, it benefits more than most from a long, hard look. One of the most revealing sustained gazes at De Palma’s cinema can be found in Chris Dumas’ 2012 book Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible. The text gathers both the usual suspects (Alfred Hitchock and Pauline Kael) and some surprise witnesses (Jean-Luc Godard and Bret Easton Ellis) to frame the director as a kind of ideological operative. One whose work interrogates social and political reality as much as it references film history.

A simplified version of Dumas’ thesis would be that De Palma, who emerged in the late 1960s as an underground filmmaker with ties to New York’s experimental art and theatre community, didn’t abandon the political bent of early features like Greetings (1968) or Hi, Mom! (1970). After his arrival as a director of luxe Hollywood thrillers à la Carrie (1976), De Palma instead modified his project to fold similarly incendiary ideas into mainstream works. Dumas’ book also argues — at times, very persuasively — that the common denominator in the director’s work is an obsession with failure. A self-lacerating sense of melancholy is rooted in his personal and professional autobiography, and at times, expanded to a national scale. From John Travolta’s heartbroken soundman in Blow Out (1981) to the psychologically-broken veterans at the centre of Casualties of War (1989) and in Redacted, De Palma empathizes with characters (typically, men) whose inability to act, despite their moral certainty that they should, results in collateral damage. It’s typically embodied by a woman that will haunt them after the final fade out.

Dumas suggests that each of these failures, placed in order along a continuum, traces a larger political narrative about the recrimination and impotence of the American political left. In the process, this transforms De Palma from the exploitative, technocratic showman of the popular critical imagination – a persona unfortunately foregrounded in Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary portrait — into a far more complex sort of artist. Dumas’ need to position De Palma as a quixotic, and at times, impulsively self-defeating striver against the status quo suggests a degree of self-projection. (See his broadsides at the institutional complacency of “Film Studies.”) But it’s that same sense of identification between author and subject that makes Un-American Psycho such a compelling read.

In anticipation of the July 7th TIFF Lightbox screening of one of De Palma’s most overtly political films — the flat-out confrontational Hi, Mom!, which is surely one of the most bracing counterculture comedies ever produced — I had an email exchange with Dumas about some of the different ways to look at Brian De Palma. By the end, I was ready to stare at most of these movies all over again.

ADAM NAYMAN: WHAT IS INVOLVED IN CLAIMING — OR RE-CLAIMING — BRIAN DE PALMA AS A "POLITICAL FILMMAKER?” WHAT, IN YOUR OPINION, IS THE PRIMAL SCENE OF HIS "POLITICAL" SIDE? AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SITUATE SOMEBODY RECOGNIZED AS A MAINSTREAM FILMMAKER WITHIN A COUNTERCULTURAL CONTEXT?

Chris Dumas: Well, I'd say that it requires re-thinking what it means to be a "political" filmmaker. Before 1960 or so, I suppose it meant that you made movies like Salt of the Earth — serious, sober melodramas about injustice. Now, after 9/​11, I guess it means documentaries, The Big Short or historical gestures like Selma. But in between, there was Godard, and the idea that cinematic form itself was political — the morality-of-the-tracking-shot idea. Godard made it okay to do political work inside the confines of genre, and that's the path that De Palma found.

Sisters, for example: it's hard not to admire the chutzpah of remaking Psycho with an African-American male in the Janet Leigh role, and with a crusading white feminist reporter in the Vera Miles role. Then the double chutzpah of the hopeless, the-system-always-wins ending. I guess that hopelessness, coupled with the attention to genre, is what makes it hard for some American cinephiles, mostly those of a certain age, to see De Palma as having a politics. Americans, especially white Americans, like happy endings. And American audiences don't like feeling like they've been the butt of a joke, which of course is the De Palma trademark.

As for the "primal scene" of his politics — I've always wanted to ask him about that. Was it when he was a teenager and got shot by a cop? You've probably heard that, here in the USA, the cops really like to shoot people. I'd imagine that surviving something like that would probably make you reflect on society a little bit.

ADAM: LET'S GO WITH THE SHOT-BY-A-COP IDEA. I WONDER IF ONE WAY TO START TALKING ABOUT GREETINGS AND HI, MOM! IS HOW THEY SITUATE THEMSELVES IN DIFFERENT WAYS AGAINST INSTITUTIONS AND AUTHORITY FIGURES, AND THE INTERSECTION OF PERSONAL AND POLITICAL GRIEVANCE. THEIR NARRATIVE WORLDS AND CHARACTERS — ESPECIALLY DE NIRO — ARE REFLECTIONS OF THE ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT ATTITUDE OF THE DIRECTOR. BUT THERE'S ALSO MORE THAN YOUTHFUL CYNICISM AT WORK IN THESE FILMS. I'D TAKE YOUR IDEA ABOUT GODARD AND REVERSE IT BY SAYING THEY SEEM TO BE STRAINING AGAINST GENRE, AND TRYING TO EXPLODE IT, FROM THE INSIDE OUT.

Chris: Possibly so, but what genre are they straining against? De Palma didn't really commit fully to Hitchcock until Sisters. I'd say, before that, he was less concerned with understanding those kinds of rules and techniques—he was still more Masculin/​Feminin than Rear Window. He knew he didn't like The System, however that was defined (the police, the draft board). But authority figures, representatives of that system, were still at a remove. Like LBJ on the television in Greetings — they're not ordinary human beings yet, the way they are in Blow Out. He's not yet seeing the institutions as rickety structures produced by human weakness, but as something monolithic, imposed from above.

Anyway, youthful cynicism is different from the cynicism of the disappointed, disillusioned adult. What you get over time in De Palma, but not in the rest of his cohort (Scorsese, et al.), is the slow realization that things are actually even worse than you imagined. A friend of mine once met Oliver Stone, and he took the opportunity to ask him what it was like to work with De Palma. Stone grew thoughtful and replied that De Palma was the saddest man he'd ever met. Not sad as in pathetic, I think, but broken, past hope, depressive. Hi, Mom! isn't like that, but Sisters certainly is.

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/embed/vtYhz2NqWxk

ADAM: HI, MOM! DEFINITELY ISN'T PAST HOPE—IT'S A YOUNG MAN'S MOVIE, AND THAT IRREVERENCE IS DEFINITELY IN A LOT OF KEY SCENES, ESPECIALLY "BE BLACK, BABY," WHICH IS, OF COURSE, A TRULY AUDACIOUS PIECE OF SATIRE. ONE THING I'VE OFTEN WONDERED: DO YOU THINK DE PALMA DIFFERENTIATES BETWEEN THE AUDIENCE-WITHIN-THE-FILM AND THE AUDIENCE OF THE FILM HI, MOM! AT LEAST, IN TERMS OF HOW AND WHY THEY'RE BEING CONFRONTED WITH SUBVERSIVE IDEAS AND IMAGERY?

Chris: Yeah, the "Be Black, Baby!" sequence is pretty astounding. It's following the lead of Weekend, going way past what's expected or even acceptable in satire. From what I understand, the consensus on the movie at the time wasn't positive. There were some political attacks on the film, especially in the UK. They thought it promoted violence. Probably not a totally unreasonable interpretation.

I'm not sure how well I can imagine myself into the position of a contemporaneous audience, seeing Hi, Mom! in a theatre in New York City in 1970, very soon after the Weathermen townhouse explosion. But De Palma definitely wants to put you through the wringer.

A digression: have you seen the Bertolucci film Partner? It's roughly contemporaneous with this phase of De Palma's career and also with Godard's Weekend — in fact, I seem to recall that at least parts of it were shot during May '68. It's about a professor who gets involved with revolutionary theater, and like Hi, Mom!, it was made after the director spent some time making a film with a radical theatre group. (In Bertolucci's case, the Living Theater and an episode in Love and Anger; in De Palma's, the Schechner group and Dionysus in '69.) It's an extraordinary movie, a real film maudit, totally drunk on Godard. And I do mean "drunk." I've always thought it'd make a great double bill with Hi, Mom!.

ADAM: THAT'S INTERESTING, INSOFAR AS THE ALTERNATE TITLE FOR BOTH GREETINGS AND HI, MOM! COULD BE "THE NON-CONFORMIST!" THE DRAFT-DODGER ASPECT OF GREETINGS ESPECIALLY IS SOMETHING I'D LIKE TO TALK ABOUT. IT'S A DARING THING FOR A MOVIE MADE IN 1968, AND DE PALMA REALLY WAS AHEAD OF THE CURVE IN MAKING A MOVIE THAT, HOWEVER IRREVERENTLY, CHANNELLED RESENTMENT/SKEPTICISM ABOUT VIETNAM. I MEAN, IT CAME OUT AROUND THE SAME TIME AS THE DIRTY DOZEN AND THE GREEN BERETS, AND IT'S ALL ABOUT A HERO WHO WANTS NOTHING TO DO WITH ANY OF THAT...

Chris: Yes, the rejection of that kind of rah-rah, big-dick American heroism. (But your juxtaposition of The Dirty Dozen and The Green Berets is itself complicated, innit? I remember attempting to watch the Wayne film and turning it off after 20 minutes — life's too short.) Anyway, flash forward to Casualties of War — it's easy to imagine De Palma reading the Lang book as it appeared in the New Yorker in 1969 and thinking, "there but for the grace of God." The Sean Penn character is De Palma's estimation of how that rah-rah, big-dick heroism actually functions: murderous bravado and rape are the two primary functions of masculinity in wartime. And the Michael J. Fox character, cringing and passive and helpless, is De Palma's portrait of what his own experience would have been like, had he been drafted.

ADAM: YOU SEE THAT ALSO REFLECTED AND ARGUABLY MULTIPLIED IN REDACTED, WHICH COPIES CASUALTIES OF WAR IN TERMS OF NARRATIVE STRUCTURE BUT FEELS DIFFERENT IN THAT IT'S NOT PERCEIVING WAR AT A DISTANCE. THE SERENE TRACKING SHOTS AND GHOSTLY, HAUNTING IMAGERY IS REPLACED BY A SPLINTERED IMMEDIACY — THERE'S NO LONG VIEW FOR THE CHARACTERS OR THE DIRECTOR OR THE VIEWER. WHICH MAY BE WHY IT REMINDED ME OF GREETINGS, IT'S DEALING WITH AMERICA IN WARTIME IN REAL TIME...

Chris: And that immediacy means that the anger isn't distanced either — watching Redacted is like having someone scream in your face for two hours. It's barely a movie at all — there's no justification, in De Palma's mind, for artistry in a situation like this. The references back to Casualties (and to The Untouchables — "so endeth the lesson") and to The Wild Bunch just to amplify how not-movie it really is.

I remember that De Palma originally pitched the film as nothing but a montage of YouTube clips, and when the producers thought that would be legally difficult, he decided to restage the clips instead. I wonder if he actually mocked up a found-footage version— I would very, very, very much like to see that.

ADAM: DO YOU REALLY THINK REDACTED IS A NON-MOVIE? I THINK THE PILE-UP OF FORMS IS VERY PLAYFUL AND PURPOSEFUL. I LOVE THE FAUX FRENCH DOC-WITHIN-THE-FILM, “BARRAGE,” AND FEEL LIKE IT'S AN EXAMPLE OF DE PALMA BURLESQUING OTHER FORMS/FORMALISTS OF FILM HISTORY BEYOND HITCHCOCK — A MORE GENERAL TOPIC THAT YOUR BOOK UNDERLINES WITH REAL INSIGHT. HITCHCOCK IS ALWAYS MOBILIZED AS PSYCHOLOGICAL AND THE POLITICS IN HIS FILMS ARE SOCIAL/GENDER-BASED. DE PALMA, UNLIKE HITCHCOCK FOR THE MOST PART, POINTS TO REAL-WORLD POLITICS.

Chris: By "non-movie" I don't mean that it isn't a motion picture. I mean that, unlike every other De Palma movie, it's not trying to give you a movie experience. It's trying to slap you in the face. But for all its inventiveness and its play with forms, it's about as unpleasurable a movie as I've seen. Which is almost certainly the point. "Why are we doing this Vietnam bullshit again? Seriously? Are we all that stupid?"

And you're right, too, about Hitchcock and real-world politics. For example, Hitchcock’s movies Foreign Correspondent or (cough) Topaz — both take place against a backdrop of current events, but that backdrop is always just another location. I wonder if Hitch ever watched The Battle of Algiers or Z. No doubt that De Palma did.

ADAM: DO YOU THINK THAT IT'S TOO EASY TO SIMPLY LOOK FOR THE POLITICAL DE PALMA IN HIS POLITICAL FILMS—IN THE DRAFT-DODGER HERO OF GREETINGS OR THE SOLDIER PROTAGONISTS OF REDACTED? THE SUBTITLE OF YOUR BOOK IS "THE POLITICAL INVISIBLE," WHICH IS HIGHLY SUGGESTIVE IN A LOT OF WAYS. I THINK OF JOHN LITHGOW IN BLOW OUT — THE CIPHER WHO EXISTS OUTSIDE THE WORLD OF PARTIES, PUBLICITY AND POLICY, BUT WHO, IN MANY WAYS, DRIVES THE CYCLE FORWARD. WHILE IT'S NOT IN-YOUR-FACE EXPLICIT, THE POLITICAL SIDE OF DE PALMA'S CINEMA IS STILL PRESENT IN AN EPHEMERAL WAY...

Chris: Absolutely, this is one of the problems with the way that De Palma — up until the last few years — has traditionally been discussed in the USA. How do you draw a line from Hi, Mom! to Dressed to Kill? The former has elements that are easily identified as political elements, but the latter is “just a remake of Psycho" — i.e. the Hitchcockian element is a priori seen to be an apolitical element. But that's exactly the way in. What does it mean to put the Psycho structure to work in upper-middle-class, late-Carter-era NYC? The politics appears at the edges (the various appearances of African American actors, which ironically frame the various white characters' travails) and also right at the center, in the Psycho element itself, which for De Palma is already political. Think of the way that, over his career, he keeps transposing Psycho onto the JFK assassination event. And of course De Palma seems to view his own family history in a political way, so placing his own relationship with his mother into Dressed to Kill does a lot of the same work.

Alternately, consider De Palma beside someone like Alan J. Pakula and his paranoia-conspiracy movies. The Parallax View and, to an extent, All The President's Men both mystify political power and the crimes committed in the name of that power. De Palma, in Blow Out and even Snake Eyes, does the opposite. And yet, the Pakula films are often thought of as properly political, yet the De Palma films, probably because of the presence of the Hitchcockian and comedic elements, are just errors of some kind.

ADAM: I LIKE THIS IDEA OF "DEMYSTIFICATION," SINCE THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT TRAVOLTA IS DOING IN BLOW OUT, AND YET — A BIT LIKE THE PARALLAX VIEW — IT'S FINALLY A MOVIE ABOUT A GUY WHO UNKNOWINGLY ENGINEERS HIS OWN DOWNFALL. IT MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA TO TALK ABOUT THE IDEA OF "DEFEAT IN DE PALMA." I CAN'T THINK OF A MAJOR FILM OF HIS THAT ENDS IN VICTORY OTHER THAN THE FURY, AND TYPICALLY, HIS CODAS ARE FILLED WITH GUILT AND RECRIMINATION. YOU TALK ABOUT THIS IN THE BOOK TO SOME EXTENT, BUT IF DE PALMA'S CINEMA IS OF “THE LEFT,” IT'S A LEFT RESIGNED TO ITS OWN FAILURE, OVER AND OVER AGAIN...

Chris: Yes, you're exactly correct: it's a cinema of the defeated, post-Nixon left. It's the evolution from "I want to be the American Godard" to "the revolution is always sucked in and co-opted." (I’m paraphrasing.) For some former lefties, that sense of hopelessness and inevitability drove them to the right wing (especially in the Reagan ‘80s), but that was never an option for De Palma. Maybe one could say that Mission to Mars has a hopeful ending, but then again that's not a "major film" of his. In this regard, I'm really glad he didn't actually get to direct Flashdance.

I think a lot of the sense of defeat also comes from the dozens of interesting projects that De Palma did not get to make. I haven't seen the Baumbach/​Paltrow movie yet, but I doubt there's a lot of screen time devoted to the ones that got away. I really want to see De Palma talk about films like The Demolished Man or Fire or Act of Vengeance, the one about the Yablonski murders — projects that were obviously really personal (and, at least in the case of Act of Vengeance, unavoidably political), but that didn't get the green light. One of the suppositions in the book is that, for De Palma, the defeat of the Left and De Palma's own defeat in Hollywood are transposed onto one another in some way. Maybe this is clearest in movies like Phantom of the Paradise and Blow Out.

Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/embed/0t3-rfVPH3g

ADAM: TRAVOLTA WORKS IN A STUDIO ABOVE A PORN THEATRE: IT'S A THIN LINE BETWEEN "INDEPENDENCE PICTURES" AND FLESH-PEDDLING. IN ONE WAY, DE PALMA'S DEFEAT IN HOLLYWOOD IS A SELF-CONTAINED, PARTIALLY SELF-AUTHORED PHENOMENON — A "CAREER" — BUT THE THINGS THAT HAVE HAPPENED ON A LARGER-SCALE ARE PRETTY SAD. I DON'T MEAN TO ROMANTICIZE THE ‘70S, BUT IT FEELS LIKE IN THE END, HOLLYWOOD BEAT THAT WHOLE GENERATION, AND THE ARTISTIC EQUIVALENTS THESE DAYS EITHER WORK IN ITS SHADOW OR OFF-THE-GRID...

Chris: Well, if we look at those five directors who are always spoken of together as the "film school generation" — Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, De Palma — there are five distinct paths. Neither Lucas nor Spielberg was ever fundamentally at odds with the system, although Lucas for some reason seems always to have been terribly bitter about something. Maybe he blames everyone else for Howard the Duck. Scorsese has only had a few sizable box-office hits, but like Woody Allen, he seems to just keep getting to make movies — and, like Mr. Allen, to diminishing artistic effect. And there's Coppola, whose immolation seems to have been more or less completely self-inflicted.

But the pendulum always swings, doesn't it? I wouldn't be surprised if, at some point pretty soon, the system had some kind of fundamental reset. Maybe a season of enormous, studio-busting flops, coupled with some kind of Easy Rider phenomenon — some little picture that comes flying out of left-field and makes a billion dollars and sends all the executives into spasms of confusion, and the gates fly open for a limited time. I'm not saying it'll happen, but it could. But maybe we're already in the middle of that reset, with HBO and Netflix et al. redefining what cinema means. I guess we'll find out.